The Influence Fallacy

There is a tendency in some cultural criticism – it's rife in rock music criticism – to claim that some art work or artist is important because it or she/he influences a later art work or artist. Almost invariably, the latter is a consecrated, acknowledged “great.”

Just recently I saw on TCM one of those remembrance pieces on Sidney Poitier, claiming that his importance is the influence he had on future black actors. The piece gave the influence argument a “pioneer” spin: Poitier, in its version, allowed Denzel Washington to happen.

I'm left scratching my head, not because Poitier does not offer performances worthy of imitating or because I think contemporary actors do not think themselves in debt to Poitier. But because if I entertain the counterfactual I can see a few possible avenues of historical causation:

1) Without Poitier, American cinema stays suspended in the race-representational regimes of the 1940s and in the labor practices of the studio years. A Denzel Washington or Danny Glover gets no employment in decent roles.
2) Without Poitier, American cinema develops more or less the same. Another actor, maybe as talented, maybe not, is cast in the same role of the “model Negro with dignity” to correspond to discursive and representational demands. This of course would be the hardcore Marxian-materialist explanation.
3) Without Poitier, American cinema does change, but with a time lag. That is, it continues to refuse (or not even imagine) dignified, rounded roles to African-Americans and thereby gets swept up in broader social change in a much more revolutionary fashion than it even experienced in fact.
4) Without Poitier, American cinema could have found another, less politically compromised figure to experiment in well-rounded, positive characterization. Or at the very least might not have been so invested in one star. Multiple stars may have opened up representational possibilities, with their own future consequences.

Numbers 1 and 4 are possible but do not strike me as very likely. My gut tells me 2 and 3 are about even in their chance, though there is no way of knowing. The point is that the influence argument is fallacious because, among other things, it reads causation backward.

Beyond causation, what of the aesthetic value we assign to influence? Again, I'm a little baffled. If Godard draws inspiration from Sam Fuller and Monogram pictures, without these he'd presumably have found other material to be inspired by.

Michael Baxandall, in Patterns of Intention, sets out another critique of influence arguments; they get the vector of influence reversed: “If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters, the second is always the more lively reality” (59). In Baxandall's example, Picasso's work forever reinterprets what Cezanne's meant. One could easily substitute in Godard and Monogram Pictures.

The influence fallacy is more common in popular criticism than academic film studies, but it abounds here too. I have already mentioned examples in Jon Lewis's textbook. Often, I suspect, we adopt the influence fallacy when we want to seem relevant, to make that obscure older film seem vital to the contemporary culture our students claim in defiance of academic taste and bygone historical periods.


Dan said…
Jorge Luis Borges has an excellent piece on the problem: "Kafka and His Precursors" (available here, for example, originally from a collection Everything and Nothing). Borges argues, after cataloging some of Kafka's influences, that:
"If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist."

Kafka, in other words, creates his precursors, not (just) the other way around.
Kelli Marshall said…
Hi--I'm new to your blog and am enjoying it so far.

Really interesting piece on Poitier. Admittedly, when I teach IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, etc. and talk about Poitier's star image, I generally also mention Denzel Washington's Oscar speech, which implies Poitier's profound influence on his award and career. After all, it is with Poitier that Washington begins:

Denzel: "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney. They finally give it to me and what'd they do? They give it to him the same night. I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do. God bless you. God bless you.

Thanks to your musings here, I'll now think differently about that Poitier class lecture. =)

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